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Richard Thompson blew the audience away.
Richard Thompson blew the audience away.

Emmylou lets her hair down

Emmylou Harris, owner of country music's most ethereal voice, a hillbilly goddess who seems to have descended from the heavens, landed at The Pabst Theater last night along with Rodney Crowell, a very competent backup band and one heck of an opening act in Richard Thompson.

Shall we start at the beginning?

Thompson, for those who aren't familiar, once led Britain's answer to The Byrds, Fairport Convention. From the day he started electrifying traditional music he's been scaring the bejeesus out of anyone who entertained silly notions that they could actually play the guitar. As radical as Hendrix in his own way, he takes ancient Celtic melodies places they have never been and brings them back cross-eyed and dazed.

Had he done only that, it would be impressive, but he also writes brilliantly dark, funny songs and then sings them with an urgency that make his contemporaries in the punk rock trenches sound tame. After his brilliant recordings with Fairport and ex-wife Linda Thompson, he scored more points here and there with his solo records, including a minor hit and major crowd pleaser, "52 Vincent Black Lightning."

Watching Thompson perform that solo, it was easy to envision guitarists scattered throughout the audience with their jaws on the floor. Apart from a brief solo set in the middle of his show, he did everything with his very sympathetic trio. They obviously understood the premise — this guy is Mark Knopfler for people who prefer to stay awake at shows. His guitars sound like they are strung with barbed wire and the light filtered down on his beatific smile. You had to think this is one happily twisted man. And he is back with a vengeance.

The camaraderie and bonhomie exhibited by the headliners Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell wasn't cooked up by record company publicists a few months ago in a rehearsal studio. These two go all the way back to mid-1974 when Harris was searching for songs for her first WB record and found his to be perfect. Their fri…

"Yes, he's fedorable." Drawing by John Sieger of Leonard Cohen at the Milwaukee Theatre last night.
"Yes, he's fedorable." Drawing by John Sieger of Leonard Cohen at the Milwaukee Theatre last night.

Hallelujah, Leonard, I'm your man!

If Leonard Cohen didn't exist, David Lynch would have to invent him.

In a performance with his stellar nine-piece band that was a mystifying mixture of "Blue Velvet" and dialog with that other poet of song, Bob Dylan, Cohen delivered an evening that moved a capacity audience from the first song to the last. It didn't hurt that the first song was "Dance Me to the End of Love," his meditation on love (his most common topic) and the Holocaust.

It also didn't hurt that he immediately dropped to his apparently much younger knees in a posture that evoked a more humble James Brown. To even pull off a song with references to that tragic chapter in history is an accomplishment; to put it across with grace and panache to a Downtown crowd on a Friday night is simply amazing.

And just who are these Cohen fans?

I was a lukewarm one until last night, but now I'm close to red hot. I always respected the man's work, chuckled at a few of his best lines and adored, along with generations of Americans, his song "Hallelujah."

Having said that, I am wary of a certain middle-brow vibe that can surround shows that attract this demographic. Often, it can prove to be an evening of professional but not necessarily risky show biz.

This had all the trappings: an elegant set with curtains dropping like the aurora borealis from the heavens and changing colors just as often, the band and the man in tasteful black or charcoal grey suits and every touch of production, from sound to the obligatory curtsying guitar techs, doing their jobs.

What distinguishes the "Man with the Golden Voice" from many of his contemporaries, and allows him to rise a little above the middle-brow crowd, is his songs. Each of them has an equal measure of danger and sly humor written in, and once that's done all that's left to do is hone the performance. He has obviously approached that task with gusto.

Claiming he "didn't want to be a nuisance" after not playing Milwaukee for 38 years, he sprinkled his set with fun…

Amy Schumer, Saturday at The Pabst Theater.
Amy Schumer, Saturday at The Pabst Theater. (Photo: Erik Ljung)

Schumer's star eclipsed by opening act

Usually at any concert the opening act is designed to serve as a solid appetizer to get the audience settled in for the headline performer. This was not the case at The Pabst Theater on Saturday night as Amy Schumer’s opener Bridget Everett was a supernova that made Schumer’s set feel like a post-dinner piece of hard candy.

Nobody on the first floor could have felt that they were out of harm’s way as Everett destroyed the fourth wall separating the audience from the performer. Opening with a high energy song in which she repeatedly promised to "f*** some s*** up," Everett immediately garnered a shocked reaction since her undergarments were clearly visible through her transparent outfit. Several times she shifted her legs so that there was nothing pretending to hide her underwear.

She also popped a bottle of champagne on stage and turned the first few rows of The Pabst into a "splash zone" by spraying some of the beverage out of her mouth after taking a swig. During the course of this song, she made the following statement: "Some of you may not know me, but you will not f***ing forget me." Her thesis was 100 percent true.

Everett’s material came second to her physicality because of how fearless she was as a performer. For her next song, she went into the audience and interacted with multiple individuals on a very personal level. Whether it was pulling them closely to her chest or climbing over the laps of entire row of people, she created an atmosphere where there was no safety barrier.

By not knowing what could possibly happen next, the whole audience was captivated. Then Everett set her sights on a man in the second row she nicknamed "Corky," who she aggressively pursued. Everett asked him, "You ever been with a big girl before?" After he replied no, she told him to call his mother and tell her that his luck was about to change.

The final number of the night revolved around Everett toying with "Corky" after getting him to come up on the Pabst stage. Af…


Burr brings the funny to The Pabst

It’s a pretty rare accomplishment for a stand-up comedian to receive a standing ovation from half the audience before telling a single joke, but Bill Burr managed to get such a response before starting his sold out late show at The Pabst Theater Friday night.

Constantly touring, Burr has proved to be one of the most prolific stand-up comedians currently working. His second show on Friday proved to be a marvelous showcase for a comedian who hit the perfect trifecta of material, self-assuredness and experience. Part of what makes Burr special is his ability to make everything look and sound so easy, creating an aura of effortlessness that is the byproduct of his dedication to his craft. Even his approach to shutting down hecklers (by completely steamrolling them) highlighted a comedian bringing his A game to the table.

Burr was able to transcend basic topics such as hotels vs. motels and airplane travel and present his fresh perspective. He marveled at the security of a hotel, while reflecting on his fear of motels when he was touring as a younger road comedian. The best joke from this material was when he talked about how the windows at a roadside motel allow those driving by to see what type of person is staying in the room and his classification of this as a "serial killer buffet."

When talking about his fear of flying, Burr said that it wasn’t so much the act of flying that scared him, but rather since he travels so often, the odds of being involved in a plane crash aren’t in his favor. He expanded on this, saying "I don’t like connecting flights, I like a direct flight. I like to go all in on one plane. I don’t try to split aces." Burr also added that he prefers to fly on big jets, since the captains of those planes are essentially star players of aviation, while those who fly the smaller propeller planes are the bench warmers of the industry.

There were several excellent sports-themed jokes told by Burr, who wisely added incorporated local elements…